Guest editorial: Australia is on fire, and the world is endangered

Guest editorial: Australia is on fire, and the world is endangered

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Hell on Earth

Fire and thick smoke engulf the village of Nerrigundah, Australia, on Dec. 31. Environmental issues make up the top five risks to the global economy for the coming decade, organizers of the World Economic Forum in the Swiss ski resort of Davos said.

If a Hollywood producer ordered up these images, they might be dismissed as too dramatic: orange skies; ash-filled rain; fire tornadoes; flames jumping as high as 230 feet; people huddling for shelter on the beach.

Australia’s wildfires are a disaster on a scale hard to fathom, charring an area roughly the size of West Virginia. California’s massive 2018 blazes hit a sixth as much land as Australia’s have so far this fire season. Government officials report that a third of the koalas in New South Wales might be gone. The nation’s eucalyptus forests may be damaged for good.

This is the future humanity is writing for itself, right now, every day world governments waste failing to respond to climate change. Yes, not every natural disaster has a climate-change link. And, yes, there are forces at work around Australia that predate climate change.

But the context in which every natural variation in temperature or precipitation now plays out is hotter, making dangerous conditions and deadly results more likely.

Specifically, southern Australia’s temperatures have risen about 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit since 1950. Conditions over the past 20 years have been hotter and drier than in the 20 years before that, and the 20 years before that, and the 20 years before that, and so forth. December saw the nation’s hottest day on record, an average of more than 107 degrees Fahrenheit — a threshold surpassed just the next day. Heat and drought have toasted the land, turning Australia’s countryside into a tinderbox.

A major factor worsening Australia’s fire season is a natural cycle known as the Indian Ocean Dipole, which can make water in the western Indian Ocean warmer and in the eastern Indian Ocean cooler. This results in less rainfall over Australia. This phenomenon has dried out the nation for two years. Though it is too early to quantify any link between climate change and the dipole’s recent behavior, scientists have warned that global warming is shifting the cycle, making extended Australian drought more likely.

Australia has become a poster child for the ill effects of breakneck fossil-fuel burning. Its iconic Great Barrier Reef is in peril as ocean temperatures rise and atmospheric carbon-dioxide emissions acidify the seas. Its sky-high temperatures and raging fires are a warning that land and sea are vulnerable to climate disruptions. And yet it is the world’s largest coal exporter, and its government has dragged its feet on curbing planet-warming emissions.

Even without human help, Earth can be at times inhospitable. All the more reason to avoid priming the planet for worse — extreme weather, intense heat waves, more drought, more flooding, rising seas, species die-offs, disease proliferation, and more foreseeable and unforeseeable consequences. Australia, which has profited off fossil fuel extraction and use, has a responsibility to help lead the world. So does the United States, which under the Trump administration is every bit as complicit.

Online: https://www.washingtonpost.com

This editorial was first published Jan. 6 in The Washington Post.

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